Working in mental health after experiencing abuse/trauma

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lingua_franca
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Working in mental health after experiencing abuse/trauma

Post by lingua_franca » Sat Dec 16, 2017 3:55 am

This thread is inspired partly by my decision to seek therapy to help me come to terms with an abusive relationship that ended two and a half years ago, and partly by something Workingmama said in another poster's thread:
workingmama wrote:As a profession we are aware of how far we are from having a culture where we can openly acknowledge our own struggles with mental health. We do know a very little about how big the problem is. A recent BPS review found that 46% of us answered that we had or were experiencing depression. That's just depression, and just the people who chose or felt able to contribute to the survey, so we know that this is the tip of the iceberg. You are, obviously, far from alone in your feelings.
Prior to my situation with my ex I've never experienced any shame over any disability or mental health needs, recognising that health - physical and mental - is never static and we all have times when we need greater support. But the distress that arose from this relationship feels different. I'm frequently plagued with a sense of shame and inadequacy that as a critically thinking feminist, someone who has studied psychology, someone who was responsible for assessing some pretty complex risk when working in the humanitarian sector - I got into, and stayed in, an abusive relationship. At times like these I feel as if my education, politics, and experience should have inoculated me against it, and the fact that I didn't leave is an indictment of my insight and various other qualities that I ought to have if I'm going to work in mental health.

I'm not asking anyone here to help me deal with these thoughts; this is work that I'm doing in my psychology sessions. I was just struck by the stats that Workingmama quoted, and I thought that I can't be the only person to have been in this situation and to have experienced these thoughts, especially as psychology is such a female-dominated profession. (I don't mean to minimise the impact of DV and abuse on men by saying that - I just mean that statistically it's more common among women.) So, to confront my own shame and to help others who may be struggling with stigma in this regard, I've made this thread.

The abuse became unbearable (not quite unbearable, because I did bear it) during the second year of my PhD, and in the third I finally extricated myself from the situation. I don't know how I completed the thesis in time when I felt as if my mind and heart were in fragments. Well, actually I do. I worked extremely hard and I was resilient and generally awesome, and I was powered by a sense of loyalty to my participants (all of them children affected by political violence). When I felt as if I couldn't continue, I would remember the excitement of the younger kids who felt thrilled that they were going to be in a book, and I would say to them telepathically, "Don't worry, guys, I am writing your book if it's the last thing I do." I got a publishing contract. The book comes out in 2018.

I got a postdoc, for which I am the PI. Alongside my research I started doing a Tavistock course, inspired by some brilliant psychodynamic supervision I received in a CAMHS support work post during my PhD, and I've fallen in love with psychoanalytic/psychodynamic ways of working. It has really helped me to think about the kind of researcher, and one day clinician, I hope to be - and to appreciate the researcher I already am. It's a course with a lot of emphasis on reflection and self-knowledge, and it is helping me to frame my experiences of trauma as a resource to draw on rather than as a defect or a sign of incompetence and perennial unsuitability for this field. I have vacillated a lot over my career choices over the years, and that was in part due to the abuse: my partner undermined my confidence at every turn and he didn't like me doing anything that didn't involve him, basically. It made it challenging to work out my path, and it wasn't the sort of thing I exactly felt I could raise with a careers adviser or supervisor. It has been very scary to work out what I want to do next without having "But what will he think? How will he react?" constraining my choices, but immensely liberating too.

Christmases in 2013 and 2014 were devastating. 2015 and 2016 were tough, as I have difficult memories associated with the time. I have a feeling that 2017 will be the first unadulterated happy one in a while. I have a line from that Greg Lake song playing in my head: "And I wish you a brave New Year..." I wanted to extend same wish to anyone with a trauma history who is pursuing a career in CP or a closely allied profession, who is worried about what their trauma says them as people/potential clinicians, and if it might hurt their career chances and affect their life even more harshly than it already has. I feel as if I spent most of the past five or six years just trying to keep my head above water, with all the things I felt I had to keep secret weighing me down like so much wet fabric, but that now I'm really swimming. Best of luck to all of you who are trying to do the same thing - we can do it. :)
"Suppose a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"
"Suppose it didn't," said Pooh, after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
- A.A. Milne.

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purpledot
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Joined: Sat Jul 05, 2014 7:12 pm

Re: Working in mental health after experiencing abuse/trauma

Post by purpledot » Sat Dec 16, 2017 10:49 am

I was going to write a longer, more fact-based reply to you about how I agree that mental health distress is really underreported in clinicians, about the #onlyus campaign, and about how much stigma around mental illness/distress and trauma there seems to be amongst mental health professionals, etc.

But actually I just want to reply personally to your words, which were incredibly moving. You're definitely not alone. I'm on a similar journey, though not as far forward as it is recent and raw at the moment. Thank you for your courage in sharing such an honest account, it was inspiring in its hopefulness and determination for moving forward. I hope you have a truly wonderful Christmas and a brave New Year.

lingua_franca
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Joined: Tue Sep 14, 2010 11:29 pm

Re: Working in mental health after experiencing abuse/trauma

Post by lingua_franca » Mon Dec 18, 2017 2:14 am

After I posted this I got a bit jittery and felt too exposed, so it was reassuring to get such a swift reply from someone who is in a similar position. I'm sorry you're in that position, but I'm glad my post encouraged you.

Sometimes I think professionals get the disclosure backwards. The first therapist I contacted for support when things got really bad told me in our very first session that she had experienced the same mental health problems as me, which made me feel uncomfortable and as if she was extrapolating far too much from her experience to mine. She talked about her experiences again in the second session, and I didn't go back. The art therapist I contacted after I got out of the relationship did a similar thing - told me that she herself had been in an abusive relationship during our first (and only) appointment. In fairness to her, she framed her disclosure in a way that did make it clear she was listening to me, so I didn't feel the way I did with the first therapist. But I still felt deterred - what if her abuse had been worse than mine, and she judged me for coping poorly with my trivial issues? - so I didn't go back. And the psychologist I'm seeing now also told me in our initial meeting that she too has been abused. I'm aware that I can't generalise from a sample of three, but I'm still wondering if the professional culture of silence around clinicians' own distress is pushing some clinicians to disclose to their clients, as though being open in the therapy room compensates for not feeling able to be open in other professional spaces.
"Suppose a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"
"Suppose it didn't," said Pooh, after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
- A.A. Milne.

purpledot
Posts: 99
Joined: Sat Jul 05, 2014 7:12 pm

Re: Working in mental health after experiencing abuse/trauma

Post by purpledot » Mon Dec 18, 2017 9:49 pm

I agree, I find the concept of self-disclosure incredibly tricky. I think when it's done in a containing and helpful manner, and has been thought through carefully and the reasons for self-disclosure considered, it has the potential to be powerful and very helpful, and there is some evidence which suggests that this can be the case. However, as in your examples, it also has the potential to be powerful in an unhelpful way. I'm not sure that I would ever feel comfortable enough to want to disclose to a client, and imagine that it would be something that I would have to unpack my reasons for it very thoroughly in supervision if I ever ended up in the position of considering it.

For what it's worth, I'm sorry that you had difficult experiences from the people you sought help from, and I hope meeting with the psychologist from the last example is going well :)

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ell
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Re: Working in mental health after experiencing abuse/trauma

Post by ell » Tue Dec 19, 2017 6:15 pm

I find it extremely concerning that therapists are disclosing to their clients that they have been abused. Yes, as a therapist, there's something about bringing one's self to therapy, especially in the interests of building therapeutic relationship and fostering a sense of genuineness. This can vary according to therapeutic approach. But I would think that most therapists are trained to do this carefully, and in moderation. Disclosing past abuse feels way outside of this.

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